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Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Bechdel Test

I've been thinking lately about the Bechdel test and why I think it tends to be overused as a form of feminist critique.

If you don't know what it is, the Bechdel test is explained here. A character says she'll only watch a movie that has two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.

On one hand, I really do appreciate the sentiment. It's often frustrating to me when male characters are the default, and the female characters are just there to be defined by their relationship to men. I definitely won't judge someone on their personal criteria for watching movies, since life is short and why waste at least an hour and a half on something that you're not going to enjoy?

But as a form of feminist critique, I think it is overused.

As an example, one of the critiques I've seen of the Dark Knight was that it failed the Bechdel test in a big way (particularly in the scene where Bruce, Rachel, Harvey and Bruce's ballerina date have dinner and Rachel and the ballerina barely say two words to each other, and what they do say is about Batman.)

And yes. It did fail the Bechdel test. But, and it's possible that I'm being a bad feminist for saying this, it's a Batman movie. I'm paying money to see a Batman movie. Batman (or a monniker affiliated with Batman) is the title of the movie. And when you stop and think about it, even very long movies like Titanic, or the Lord of the Rings movies are only what? three hours? It's a long time to sit in a theatre, sure, but it's not really that long to get all the character and plot development that needs to be in there. (Compare it to a weekly tv-show, which can have like twenty hours a season!) And while I'm sure an intelligent woman like Rachel Dawes could have many an interesting conversation with a professional ballerina... I would rather not waste the finite minutes of a movie about Batman on something that's not related to Batman.

It's a personal taste thing, really. And while I don't judge someone for deciding that "hey, this isn't the sort of movie I want to see", I really don't think it's fair to make it a part of a feminist critique of a movie. (Tangentially, I personally found the movie and Rachel Dawes in particular fairly satisfying from my own feminist perspective. Your mileage may vary, naturally.)

Just because something is a movie about men doesn't make it anti-feminist. It just makes it a movie about men.

But sometimes even in an ensemble movie, I think the Bechdel test is used as an unfair basis of feminist critique.

Take, for example, the new Star Trek movie. There's been a fair bit of feminist discussion about that movie online, resulting from Uhura's more significant role in the movie. (One particularly interesting debate is whether the fact that Uhura's significant role includes a love interest component is a step forward or a step backwards in terms of feminist progress. Personally, I liked the change, but there's some good argument on either side.)

But I've seen the Bechdel rule brought up there too. Specifically for the scene with Gaila and Uhura. Though Uhura talks about the plot significant transmissions, Gaila is talking about a man/an experience with a man. Which, okay. If you're looking at it objectively, it probably doesn't pass the Bechdel rule.

But can I be blunt for a moment?

I'm a twenty-seven year old woman. I spent a considerable portion of the last ten years in a college type environment in frequent company with other twenty-something women. And while I'll caveat that this is based on my experience and is not necessarily true for every one, I have to say...

Young straight women? Tend to talk about men and sex a LOT. In fact, I'd suggest that within a certain age group, men and sex make up a pretty large chunk of the conversation topics. Sure, we talk about other things too, but the conversation will usually inevitably veer back to that subject. (I'd imagine the opposite is true for many young straight men.)

So the fact that two young twenty-something presumably straight (or bisexual) women in a college-type environment are talking and one keeps veering the conversation back to men? Seems pretty true to life to me.

Personally, I think a better feminist critique of that scene has to do with the fact that a fairly important piece of dialogue establishing Uhura's importance to the greater plot at hand has to happen in a set up that basically is just there for Kirk/the audience to see an attractive woman in her underwear. But that's a different kettle of fish.

There are situations when I do think the Bechdel test makes a good situation for feminist critique however. One of these is in weekly television shows.

In the case of a weekly television show, it doesn't matter if it's centered around a male character because there is almost inevitably going to be some kind of ensemble cast. And while I wouldn't say every single episode needs to pass the Bechdel test, if you have twenty some odd hours in a season? You can make room for at least ONE conversation between women that's not about a man.

Likewise, even if the main female characters in the cast are college age and of the sort that 75%-80% of their conversations would have to do with men and sex, you have time to insert SOME conversation that fits in that last 20% area.

In the case of a seasonal television show, there really is no excuse for creators not to put SOMETHING there. Preferably more than once, but once at least shows that there's been some effort to define the female characters beyond their interaction with men.

The same is true, I think, for monthly ongoing comic books (with the caveat that it's a bit harder to determine an appropriate interval. With television shows, you can base it by a season or half-season. But it's harder to figure that out for a comic. Maybe once a story arc?)

That said though, I still think that, in general, the Bechdel test works better as a personal taste gauge than a feminist critique.

12 Comments:

  • At August 27, 2010 12:34 PM, Blogger Your Obedient Serpent said…

    You know, this got me thinking about movies and tv series that would fail a reverse Bechdel Test: how often do two male characters manage to have conversations that don't involve the female characters?

    I suspect that most episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer would fail a Reverse Bechdel.

    Of course, part of that is purely a technicality. Just as Batman Begins is a movie about Batman, BtVS is a show about beating up monsters. All of the significant male characters are on the Monster-Beating-Up team, and the primary Monster-Beater-Upper-Person happens to be female. Thus, almost any Male-To-Male conversation about the show's primary theme and "business" will technically fail a reverse Bechdel.

    On the other claw, even if you disregard that technicality, there are a whole lot of episodes where the men only have conversations about the female characters as people and in terms of their relationships with them and the others in their circle.

    Xander and Giles talking about how Buffy can best put the hurt on this week's Big Bad? Only fails the RBT on a technicality.

    Xander and Giles talking about Willow and Tara? Total fail of the RBT.

    Spike and Angel talking about ... oh, hell, no matter what they're talking about on the surface, any conversation between those two is really about Buffy.

     
  • At August 27, 2010 8:59 PM, Blogger Seangreyson said…

    I think the Bechdel test is best used for TV/Comics as well. You're right that movies really do have a finite time in which to establish plot (a romantic comedy almost has to fail the test after all, since conversations which advance the plot would almost have to be about relationships).

    As for TV/Comics I think Serpent has a point that it depends on the subject matter of the series.

    Take Chuck for example, the two
    main female characters are Chuck's sister, and his "girlfriend." How many conversations are they really going to have that aren't at least slightly about Chuck. Heck even if they are having a conversation about something else, Chuck is going to be the Elephant in the room. He is what the characters have in common (same as the Angel/Spike relationship in Buffy that Serpent mentioned).

    The ensemble cast nature of a lot of shows have the same problem. A show like Friends has a plot and theme which might allow a passing Bechdel test grade (and I certainly wouldn't consider Friends to be feminist), simply because it has enough significant female characters to have conversations about something beyond men.

    Other shows that would fail the Bechdel test have much better female characters (though I do love Friends), but simply don't have an adequately structured cast. Which is a problem that writers need to correct of course, but shouldn't invalidate the value of other aspects of female characters.

    Then again, maybe I'm just a man making excuses for the current status quo.

     
  • At August 27, 2010 9:13 PM, Blogger notintheface said…

    My favorite movie is "The Usual Suspects", and it fails the Bechdel test miserably. But that doesn't make it sexist. Nor a bad movie by any means.

     
  • At August 28, 2010 9:40 AM, Blogger Menshevik said…

    I think the problem is not that the Bechdel test is overused, but that some people mistakenly believe that it can be used as the sole criterion of whether or not a movie is acceptable or not. There are movies or other forms of entertainment which could feature a strong, feminist heroine but which would not pass the Bechdel test, e.g. because it is about an exceptional woman in the patriarchal past - pretty much any movie about Marie Curie or Joan of Arc would fall into this category. On the other hand, there are lots of movies etc. that would pass the Bechdel test and still would not be considered feminist by most people - e.g. various hard and softcore porn movies with lesbian sex scenes primarily for the entertainment of male viewers. (This reminds me that in one "Dykes to Watch Out For" episode Mo snuck out to watch "Striptease").

    But the Bechdel test did not become as popular as it did without a reason - it does not depend on the opinions and different sets of criteria of the two or more people discussing the merits of a film, but pretty much objectively registers something "measurable". And at least with regards to films set in the present day, it really does not set the bar THAT high. The Dark Knight technically would have qualified if an exchange such as this had occurred:

    Rachel: "How are you?"
    Ballerina date: "I sprained my left ankle last week, but I'm better now."

    Confession time: I did not see The Dark Knight because I disliked Batman Begins.

    Personally, I think where the Bechdel test comes in as a more valid form of feminist criticism is when you apply it not to an individual movie, but to e.g. look at all movies that were released in the space of, say, a year, and check the percentage that pass and fail to pass the test.

     
  • At August 30, 2010 5:51 PM, Blogger Mana G said…

    This reminds me of something I've been meaning to mention to you...Partially because it actually does happen to pass the Bechdel Test: have you seen Warehouse 13? Because I think you'd enjoy it! It's cheesy at times, but a whole lot of fun. And yes, it passes the Bechdel test, mainly because the Warehouse "staff" consist of three women and two men, and they do spend a lot of time discussing business. (Plus, the show has CCH Pounders, playing a woman who is so very like Amanda Waller, and is therefore awesome.)

     
  • At September 09, 2010 3:59 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    I have not seen it yet, I'll have to check it out!

     
  • At September 09, 2010 10:09 AM, Anonymous Allronix said…

    It's an unnecessarily strict test, IMO, especially in action-adventure settings. As a culture, we're still uncomfortable with putting women in combat situations. Hell, Mass Effect will even lampshade this if Ash gets the short straw in regards to Virmire. (Bioware games will totally pass the test, especially if you play female). That's why we'll have two or three men for every woman, even on the more egalitarian teams.

    I notice you've got a few of my favorites here - how did I NOT find you earlier?! Anyway, those are as good an example as any. Birds of Prey? Totally passes, but it's Gail Simone. She's aware enough to be doing it deliberately. And for all they talk about the gentlemen? Ollie and Hal are every bit as bad talking women.

    E:FC? We've already got limited options, and the show frankly went WAY off the rails sometime in season 3. In the two season, the only regular cast member was Lili. (If you're still counting the Taelons as genderless, despite being played by women). She gets...well, it would have been better to kill her off...and replaced with Renee. But Renee is still surrounded by male co-workers. Yeah, Season 4 & 5 we get Street, and the test can get passed - but only at the expense of just about every other character getting killed/written off. I still would NOT call the show progressive on most levels. X-files, with its sole female lead, was MILES ahead of them (though you will forgive me for entertaining the notion that Sandoval screwed Mulder and Scully out of the basement office...)

    Most cartoons would flunk. The Dungeons and Dragons cartoon might pass, though when they were talking about "men," it was usually a joke made at Eric's expense or some cryptic BS the Dungeonmaster said. There were "girls cartoons," but with VERY few exceptions, they were "dumb it down, dye it pink" Lighter and Softer counterparts to the "boy's cartoon" they were modeled on. Occasionally, you'd get a Jem or a She-Ra...most of the time, you didn't.

     
  • At October 04, 2010 8:55 PM, Blogger Maddy said…

    (Forgive me for commenting on this so belatedly, I'm catching up on my blog feeds.)

    What made the Dark Knight fail so hard for me with respect to female characters wasn't so much that it failed the Bechdel Test, but because the movie depicted that fictional universe as being one in which no woman or girl gets a positive ending.

    The only women who appear in Dark Knight are Ana Ramirez, who turns out to be traitorous and the last we see of her is Two-Face knocking her out; Rachel Dawes who, while a solid and fairly fleshed-out character, ends up both a damsel in distress and gets killed off; and lastly, Commissioner Gordon's wife, Barbara Gordon (the elder), whose only scenes show her crying, crying and slapping her husband, and crying and cowering when being held hostage by Two-Face.

    There are no other women with significant roles in the movie, and each of these women's parts in the story ends on a negative note. A movie in which no women gets any kind of positive ending (it doesn't even have to be "happy") has an overall feeling of hostility or apathy to it with respect to women.

    To say there was no room for anything like that isn't taking into account that there was plenty of room for Commissioner Gordon, Lucius Fox, Alfred, etc. Plus, they could have easily just switched James Jr. for young Babs. Just to have had the Commish giving his silly little speech at the end to his daughter, rather than his son, would've done it for me. Just a tiny little thing like that would've made that movie's universe less hostile to women, and made it so much better.

    Mind you, I think the reason why the "talk about something other than a man" part works is because it's not supposed to be a tangent or a digression that gets in the way of the story (even if the story is about a man). If two women have a brief conversation that moves the plot forward, then it's not a waste, it's vital. There's no reason why we couldn't have had another cop or lawyer be female and exchange words with another woman. It would've been pretty easy.

    Of course, the Bechdel Test is not necessarily a good indicator of how a movie treats its female characters, but it is an indicator of just how secondary women are in films. It illustrates just how scarce women are in movies, to the point where it's so rare to just have two women exchange a few plot-related lines of dialogue. That, I think, makes it a very good tool in feminist critiquing of media.

    There are lots of great female characters and roles on screen that probably don't past the Bechdel test either, so I don't see how the Bechdel test is a measure of personal taste. Two women exchanging dialogue does not make a good story in and of itself, it just ups their representation.

    The Bechdel Test makes the most sense as an indicator of gender-bias in scripts and casting, I'd say.

     
  • At December 20, 2010 11:44 PM, Blogger Greg said…

    The only complaint I have for the Bechdel Rule is that it doesn't take into account settings (particularly true stories set in the past) in which modification of the story to make it pass the test would be unrealistic or otherwise detrimental.

    The major example that comes to mind is "Band of Brothers." Because the series focuses on the soldiers of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry during World War II, , scenes depicting female characters discussing something with each other other than a male character are outside the series's purview (or would be window dressing, and would meet the rule only by technicality).

    Other historical and period series encounter the same problem: "From the Earth to the Moon", "Horatio Hornblower", etc. I don't think that this is a ruinous flaw in the Bechdel Rule, but it does seem an important oversight.

     
  • At December 21, 2010 4:52 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    This is belated, but Maddy? Who, PERIOD, gets a positive ending in Dark Knight?

    Batman lies to protect the memory of a madman. Gordon, Lucius and Alfred all fail in their principles. The Joker...well, he's the Joker. Harvey's dead too.

    Thing is though, even if you're right, that's got nothing to do with the Bechdel test which is very strict in its application.

    Whether or not Dark Knight fails as a pro-feminist movie is not determined by the conversations between the characters but by other factors (such as the end fates of the characters, in your interpretation.)

     
  • At February 19, 2012 5:20 AM, Anonymous Scott said…

    Such a great article it was which the female characters are just there to be defined by their relationship to men. In which A character says she'll only watch a movie that has two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. Thanks for sharing this article.

     
  • At February 19, 2012 5:38 AM, Anonymous Stefanie said…

    Such a great article it was which A character says she'll only watch a movie that has two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. In which It's often frustrating to when male characters are the default, and the female characters are just there to be defined by their relationship to men. Thanks for sharing this article.

     

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